Death of a Salesman
Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue
This Broadway transfer is built around a towering performance from Brian Dennehy in the title role. Already he has been garlanded with awards for his New York and Chicago performances and there seems little doubt that some English equivalents will follow by the end of the year.
The backstage team, led by multi-award-winning director Robert Falls from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, is all-American and is the backbone of a production that won four Tonys and also a stream of other awards in the United States.
Supporting the bull-like Dennehy on stage is a more evenly-balanced cast with the remainder of the family played by English actors, all sporting excellent American accents, but with several other key parts played by original cast members.
Our Salesman, long past his sell-by date, is 60 year-old Willy Loman. As he enters his twilight years, this exhausted man is very much a King Lear for our times. Indeed, lighting designer Michael Philippi bathes him in twilit gloom throughout, except when Loman's mind wanders back to sunnier days in every sense, twenty years before. It may be no coincidence that Mark Wendland's scenic design, which perfectly catches time and place, is based on a large revolve that symbolises his life.
Willy's "dreams and plans", mirroring those of the Great American Dream, which the cynical Arthur Miller portrays crumbling, were based on success for his two indolent sons.
The turning-point in his life, although he did not realise it at the time, was when elder son Biff, Douglas Henshall playing the school quarterback worshipped by all, flunked math at High School. From there, it was all downhill, as he missed out on a college place and gave up on life after his own mini breakdown. This followed the discovery of his father enjoying a little recreation with a scantily clad female buyer.
Twenty years later, Biff's life has come to nothing, but arguably Mark Bazeley as his brother Happy is even worse. He is living a lie and has become in the words of his mother "a philandering bum". Things reach rock-bottom when the boys desert their father at a hollow celebratory dinner, to go off with a couple of admittedly very beautiful women.
The conclusion that their father comes to is that the only way of achieving wealth and happiness for the family is over his dead body, worth far more than he has earned in his whole life.
Dennehy's wonderful performance, never better than when his character is either violently angry or totally deranged, is almost matched by those of several of his colleagues. These include last year's award-winning Hecuba, Clare Higgins as his brave wife Linda; American actor Howard Witt as Charley, his only friend but a man whom, through misplaced pride, he cannot bring himself to respect; and Messrs Henshall - a revelation - and Bazeley.
This wonderful production reminds us what a tremendous playwright Arthur Miller was. The reason why Death of a Salesman is so poignant is that everybody knows a Willy Loman. Whether it is your father, your uncle or some friend, you have met him or his like and can empathise.
Far too often, Miller is remembered for the wrong reason - Marilyn Monroe. London has been lucky enough to see superb revivals of All My Sons and The Price recently and a wholesale retrospective would be most welcome. The first stage might be Dominic Cooke's eagerly-awaited RSC production of The Crucible, although that is still almost a year off.
In the meantime, it is hard to recommend this three-hour production too highly, both for its overall impact and the opportunity to see Brian Dennehy in what must surely be his finest hour.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher